This is your brain on whales (and dolphins and sea birds)

Last weekend I spent 36 hours on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean in search of marine wildlife. This is what I saw. And thought.

Humpback whale, Great South Channel, Atlantic Ocean. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino
Humpback whale dive, Great South Channel, Atlantic Ocean. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

how could such an enormous creature simply slip beneath the surface in such a small swirl of water and vanish, right before my eyes?

how is it that this creature that seems to magically exist in this other reality, this other world–this vast, dark ocean–be made of the same stuff as me: flesh and bone and brain and spirit; suspended in water and raised on our mothers’ milk?

…are these whales my brothers and sisters?

Offshore bottlenose dolphins leaping, Great South Channel. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

…and what of these dolphins?

are we related, too?

the way they smile, their eyes glint, reminds me of my (human) friends’ faces after we share stories with one another…are they having conversations with their (dolphin) friends, too?

why do they leap together, executing a well-choreographed acrobatic routine? did they plan it, like (human) gymnasts so carefully do?

why do dolphins expel the energy to do their water dances if they don’t have to, if no one is dangling a fish in their face demanding that they “perform”?

how are these creatures’ sleek, undulating bodies–even as nimble-looking as they appear–able to cruise effortlessly alongside this fast-moving ship?

Offshore bottlenose dolphin cruising alongside ship, Great South Channel. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino
Offshore bottlenose dolphin “porpoising,” Great South Channel. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

what features of their bodies’ design allows them to do so?

if i had fins and a fluke, could i cut through the water as effortlessly as they do?

…and most importantly, would i have as much fun as it looks like they’re having?

Great shearwater take-off, Great South Channel. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

what does it feel like to run on water?

Gulls gather on feeding humpback’s back looking for wayward fish, Great South Channel. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

what does it feel like to stand on the shoulders of (real) giants?

Barnacle-scarred humpback whale, Great South Channel. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

why are my eyes immediately drawn to the irregular regularity of nature’s patterns?

…yet why do so many people struggle to see the beauty in imperfection, in the wounds and scars that beset us all, the challenges we have overcome, the unkindness we have survived?

Humpback whale eyeing the ship, Great South Channel. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino
Humpback whale resting on its back, Great South Channel. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

how do they live as trusting, caring, curious beings after being harmed and wronged by people?

why do we have such a hard time doing so?